Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Altered Carbon a Netflix series created by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel of the same title written by Richard K. Morgan.
Sci-fi writer Richard K. Morgan addresses the philosophy of extropy in his novel, Altered Carbon. A believer in this system trusts in improving the human condition until, one day in the future, science and technology advances to the point where humans live indefinitely. If this sounds farfetched, consider that Red Sox legend Ted Williams’ family chose cryogenic freezing upon his death in 2002.
So, for three years he held the mantle of “greatest living ballplayer” after Joe DiMaggio died in 1999 and willed a Catholic funeral Mass. Please forgive this cynical Yankee fan, but perhaps “Teddy Ballgame” intended to reacquire the mantle upon his “reactivation” in the year 2302.
Morgan’s novel, now adapted into a series on Netflix, indeed takes place 300 years in the future. The world’s technology has the ability to store consciousness in the brain, later downloading it into a body (or as the novel terms, “a sleeve”). The process is repeatable, affording denizens of this brave new world a type of immortality. Antihero Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), defeated in his first life leading a rebellion against the new world order, gets a second chance. If he solves a puzzling murder, he can keep his “sleeve.”
Engaging-noir-procedural aside, I thought the social commentary of the series to be the most intriguing aspect of the show. What would be the result of immortality? An Albert Camus quote came to mind, “A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers.” The show gets the former correct. An Altered Carbon world reveals a society crazed with sex.
The culminating scene of season one ended up in a forbidden brothel floating above Earth and out of sight, named, literally, “Head in the Clouds.” With the latter, Camus overestimated man’s inclination towards the intellectual life. Characters in the show read not the papers, but blunt their minds with hard-core drugs. An interminable lifespan doesn’t seem as appealing as originally thought.
Enter into this spiritual wasteland, the Catholic Church. Other denominations accommodated the new technology, thereby compromising central Christian truths. Indistinguishable from anything else in the world, the denominations have long since disappeared. Only the Catholic Church remains, supporting the age-old truth that God gives us one life, pointing that one life to heaven.
A life without the promise of eternity is one thing; multiple lives without consequence further exacerbates the current degradation.
The Church in the future faces much of the criticism it absorbs now. The hot-button issue of the novel invites additional persecution. As the only institution seeking natural deaths, Catholics quickly become the only group of people murdered. If one kills a Catholic in this arrangement, the perpetrator has no fear of the deceased “re-sleeving” and seeking out revenge in their second life. Thus, the political subplot is an ironic one: outlaw the murder of those most critical of sleeving.
The television series adapts the book well and personalizes the Catholic faith. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) loses her devout mother, a victim of one of the murders. The mother’s faithful witness brings Ortega back to belief. Without the recourse to re-sleeving and bringing her mother “back,” Ortega can only pray and assist her mother’s soul forward, to our Lord and eternal life with Him.
Ed. Note: Altered Carbon features plenty of sex, nudity and violence, and therefore is not suitable for the whole family. Click here for Common Sense Media’s analysis.
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